Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Best of both worlds

One of the interesting aspects of a foreign trip is to examine how wildlife reserves are managed away from the UK.  As well as a tour of Cape May sites, we spent a couple of days visiting a dozen or more sites around Delaware Bay.  So how does US management compare with UK management?

Firstly, the area of protected land in the US is remarkable, but it is a big country.  There is not only an extensive system of Wildlife Refuges but also numerous major wetland restoration schemes. The Estuary Enhancement Scheme around the bay has aimed to restore functional tidal flow to marshes, resulting in huge areas of Cord-grass (Spartina) dominated saltmarsh.   Since the introduction of regular tidal flushing at the restored 243 ha Little Creek, the saline mudflats within the impoundment have been heavily used by shorebirds (especially Short-billed Dowitchers and sandpipers) in spring and autumn, especially at high tide when the estuary mudflats are unavailable to them.  The site has a monthly flooding regime during passage periods before deeper flooding in winter.  Grass shrimps are abundant and these and the resident fish form the food base for waterfowl and wading birds.  It is also now more heavily used by Snow Geese (up to 300,000) feeding on the abundant growth of Spartina.  Not many of these restored sites seem to have much ongoing management though, resulting in rapid vegetation growth and a resultant loss of open habitat.

The Wildlife Refuges at Bombay Hook and Forsythe have bunded fresh and brackish lagoons.  These sites are so large  (Bombay Hook is 6,500 ha) that the main access is via a car route, with walking trails and viewing platforms around the site. Maintaining the populations of migratory waterfowl is a major objective at the refuges.  The freshwater lagoons are drained down in spring, providing muddy areas for waders. During the summer, emergent plants grow across the lagoons, providing abundant food for waterbirds when the lagoons are re-flooded in the autumn. This practice of Moist Soil Management is widely used in the US.  In addition, 450 ha of the refuge are planted with crops such as winter wheat, buckwheat and grass/clover leys specifically to provide food for waterbirds. Some of these areas are flooded. We don’t do much of this in the UK.  Most of these sites have high viewing platforms.  They provide good, high, long distance viewing but rarely any close views of birds.

So how does the UK differ?  Well our smaller nature reserves receive more intensive management of the habitats (perhaps too much in some cases).  Where we restore or create new sites, habitat designs tend to maximise the value of a site, maybe again a reflection of the smaller areas we have to work with.  Our reserves also tend to get people closer to the wildlife, either through site design or the range of infrastructure provided. All of this can be seen in the design and management of a reserve such as Minsmere.

Richard Crossley’s vision is to bring these ideas together to create the best of both worlds.  After looking at the pending restoration of Pond Creek Marsh at Cape May, we met with Dave Golden, the Chief of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife for some excellent discussion on possible designs.  Perhaps we might see the Pond Creek restoration take on a more UK site feel.  Likewise, perhaps we’ll see some US ideas popping up on this side of the pond.

Pics from top: Western Sandp, Little Creek, viewing platform, Forsythe, ducks, Minsmere.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

On the move - Cape May

Arriving at Cape May late into the evening, where we were staying with Richard and Deb Crossley, we were quickly informed that weather conditions were ideal for a ‘morning flight’ and so we were out at Higbee’s at 5.00am, ticking Great Horned Owl on the way.  Dark shapes zipped through the half-light, the bushes ‘tick’ed and ‘zitt’ed, and as light arrived it was clear that many birds were on the move.  Northern Flickers were everywhere, at least 200 passed over in the first couple of hours.  Cedar Waxwings, American Robins and Bobolinks called from above and the bushes were alive with warblers and vireos. A viewing platform in the corner of one of the fields overlooks an area of scrub where the first sunlight arrives. A dozen or more species of warbler were prominent this first morning, including Tennessee, Nashville, Parula, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Blackpoll, Black-throated Blue, Hooded, Prairie and Black and White.

The ‘morning flight’ at Cape May is an amazing migration spectacle.  Morning flight is an after sunrise dispersal of migrants, mainly birds re-orientating and moving northwards up the Delaware Bay shoreline back from Cape May point. The fields and wooded areas at Higbee Beach is one of the best places to observe this movement.  Some counts have been staggering, not least the 67,000 migrants counted on 13 October 2003, including 58,959 Yellow-rumped Warblers, and the 1,516 Flickers that day somewhat eclipsed our 200. After the morning flight, the custom is to move down to the hawkwatch platform near the lighthouse or explore the Cape May ‘meadows’ or other less watched areas.  At the hawkwatch platform, birds are called and counted as they pass.  That first day, 500 American Kestrels passed through according to the tally board. 

Over the following days the spectacle of visible migration was always evident; hundreds of Blue Jays endlessly flying through one day, thousands of Tree Swallows clumped in a bush another.  There were raptors galore every day with up to 50 birds of 8 species circling above at peak periods, with Sharp-shined Hawks (or ‘Sharpies’ as they like to say over there) continually visible overhead.

On the quieter days, we did the ‘must-do’ trips up to Stone Harbor Point and Nummy’s Island.  Stone Harbor Point is a long sand spit to the seaward side of extensive saltmarsh. At high tide waders gather in numbers; numerous Western and Semi-p’s on the beach, Willet, Marbled Godwit and Short-billed Dowitcher in the saltmarsh.  Rails, herons and egrets lurk in the dense Spartina beds.  Further north, Forsythe Wildlife Refuge (aka Brigantine) is another location not to miss.  Water levels were rather high on our visit but Seaside and Sharp-tailed Sparrows were there to be ‘squeeked’ and ‘pished’ out of the grass and scrub.  If visible migration is your thing, it is spectacular at Cape May.

Pics from top: Sharpie, tree swallows, black & white, Higbee's, Short-b Dow, hawkwatch, flycatcher ID, Lesser Yellowlegs.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Holl-utopia - a year on

Towards the end of last year, I reported on a new wetland being created at Hollesley in Suffolk and given the name ‘Holl-utopia’ after the Dutch site Utopia Farm that inspired it.  At Hollesley Marshes there were very few breeding and passage waders and the site sustained only two pairs of breeding Lapwing annually. This fell well short of the aspirations and targets for the reserve. The issues revolved around the layout of the field system and the inability to raise water levels high enough.  The plan was to create a new 13ha coastal wetland habitat following the design of ‘Utopia’ on the island of Texel.  However, the wetland would be freshwater rather than the brackish conditions of the Dutch site, at least in the short term, due to the difficulty of constructing a sluice through the sea wall.
The key feature of Holl-utopia is that it is a shallow wetland with a high percentage of islands; some grassy, some bare, some covered in sand or gravel.  The landform creates extensive terraced areas of shallow water down to just 20cm depth, with a slightly deeper central ditch system.  Water levels will drop during the spring and summer to expose extensive muddy areas and ultimately dry out to just retain water in the deeper ditch features. The drying out is seen as an essential feature for rejuvenating the wetland in the future.   New water control structures allow water to both enter from, and drain to, the adjacent existing ditch system.  An electric anti-predator fence around the margins of the wetland keep the local foxes as mere spectators. 

The first spring saw Glossy Ibis, Spoonbill, Temminck’s Stint and Garganey recorded, along with 25 species of wader.  So how did the first breeding season shape up (with thanks to Dave Fairhurst for the data)?  Not too bad:

·          Shoveler - 1 female seen with 7 ducklings.
Lapwing - 25 nests fledged 60 young with 100% hatching success.
Ringed plover - 3 pairs fledged 9 young.
Little Ringed Plover – a male was on territory throughout May
 Avocet – 41 pairs fledged 82 young, the largest number of young fledged from a single site in       Suffolk since 1986.
 Oystercatcher – 1 pair fledged 2 young
Redshank – 10 pairs fledged 30 young.
Black headed gull – 1 pair fledged 3 young.
Shelduck – 1 pair fledged 7 young.

     Pics above: Hollutopia in May and July

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Golden Wellies - half time

The half time scores (end of spring migration) have just been released for The Golden Wellies, the RSPB’s internal competition to find the best passage wader site each year (last years result here and a photo of the Frampton trophy cabinet above).  There are both league and knockout elements to the competition to test good wetland management throughout the year.  Monthly counts of waders are recorded, they have to be ‘feet down’ on a managed fresh/brackish scrape or flood (not tidal).

The top of the Premier League has a familiar feel with Frampton Marsh just pipping Minsmere with a total of 27 species so far.  Amongst the cluster of sites just below them, Havergate Island has leapt up the table this year after the completion of the new scrape at Hollesley.  However, this years most improved site so far is Middleton Lakes, heading The Championship on 24 species.  

Spring wader highlights were dominated by Black-winged Stilts, being recorded at 9 sites. Traditional spring migrants such as Temminck's Stints were in lower numbers than usual but June saw a typical flurry of Red-necked Phalarope records.  The tables stand as follows:  

The Premier League                                             The Championship
1. Frampton Marsh 27 species                             1. Middleton Lakes  24 species
2. Minsmere 26                                                     2. Arne  21
3. Havergate Island 24                                         3. Saltholme 21 
4. Rainham Marshes 24                                       4. Campfield Marsh 20
5. Burton Mere 24                                                5. Cattawade 18
6. Exe Estuary 23                                                 6. Blacktoft 17
7. Dearne Valley 22                                             7. Loch of Strathbeg 17
8. Old Hall Marshes 22                                        8. Otmoor 17
9. South Essex Marshes 22                                  9. Leighton Moss 17
10. Fairburn Ings 21                                            10. Mid-Yare 15
11. Dungeness 21                                                11. Belfast Lough 15
12. Lodmoor/Radipole 21                                   12. Fen Drayton 15
13. Ouse Fen 19                                                   13. Pulborough Brooks 12
14. Titchwell 19                                                   14. Snettisham 12
15. Conwy 15                                                      15. Ham Wall 11
16. Ouse Washes 14                                           

The knockout Gordon Allison Trophy has progressed to the quarter-final stage (to be played during July) with the draw shown below. A bitter local derby will be fought out between Fairburn and Dearne Valley, while in-form and muddy Middleton Lakes (below) will be hoping to dispatch dried-up old Dungeness.

Belfast Harbour v Conwy                              Burton Mere v Blacktoft
Fairburn Ings v Dearne Valley                     Frampton v Mid Yare
Middleton Lakes v Dungeness                    Minsmere v Exe Estuary